How important are words?
As a writer, I consider words to be imperative to my existence; without words, my stories are a blank page. And yet, it is possible to build a narrative without these basic tools, to draw in your audience with characters who remain believable despite their silence.
Perhaps then, my opening question was misleading. Maybe the real issue I would like to address in this piece is: how important is dialogue?
I have been lucky enough, in recent months, to see two rather unique performances that thrived in the absence of dialogue. The first was a pre-Christmas screening of the 1928 silent comedy, Steamboat Bill Jr. brought to Birmingham Cathedral (along with mulled wine and live music) by the organisers of Flatpack Film Festival. The second was an innovative take on Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands; a show that successfully revised the original 1990 screenplay and one which transported the audience into Edward’s world through the emotive medium of dance.
Both shows relied heavily on a clever musical score, but music was not dialogue’s sole substitute in either performance. Skilful choreography from Matthew Bourne moved the surreal storyline forward in Edward Scissorhands with ease and continuity, but it was the dancers’ expressions that I found utterly absorbing. The slightest frown from Edward was all it took to display his naïve confusion; the collective gawps of the suburban residents, an obvious demonstration of their initial apprehension.
The same was the case in Charles Reisner’s 1928 classic. Deft performances from Steamboat Bill Jr.’s supporting cast allowed the storyline to follow a comprehensible path, whilst Buster Keaton’s theatrical countenance and ambitious stunts ensured the rapt audience were kept in hysterics for almost two hours.
So what, as writers, can we learn from these ‘wordless’ performances?
There is uncompromising honesty in silence. Whilst writers may argue that dialogue helps determine character, so too can the smallest of expressions and with a power that can ascertain so much more. Steamboat Bill Jr.’s silence was a limitation of its time, but the recent revival of silent cinema, as well as the popularity of original productions such as Edward Scissorhands, would suggest that there is still a call for performances that challenge modern-day norms.
And so, whilst dialogue remains a pivotal storytelling device for any writer, it’s worth remembering that a small smirk or quick grimace is often as effective as direct speech and even though it may be possible to build a narrative without words, an audience is not drawn to its characters in spite of this, but often because of it.